Yesterday, floating in deep water amongst the huge grey rocks at Otter Point in Cape Maclear on the southern shore of Lake Malawi, I kept thinking what Elder Lourenco had told me back in Mozambique, amongst the islands of the Quirimbas, the battered dhow under motor in the hot sun across the bay.
“All freediving is mental,” he said to me. “The first time you go down, and you’re afraid, and you only stay twenty seconds. The next time, you relax a little, and you can stay twice as long. After that third dive, you’re not always just trying to get back to the surface – you can look and stay and just be.”
With those words in my mind and the water like an infinite field all around me, I hang buoyant on the surface, my body curled into a ball and resting, breathing slowly with my eyes closed. With a few huge deep breaths to flood my cells with oxygen, I uncurl, then turn and kick down from the surface, my eyes half-closed like in meditation, my mind kept quiet and empty. When I reach the bottom, perhaps six or seven meters down, I pinch my nose and blow out to equalize the pressure in my ears, then turn over to look at the sweep of rocks and ledges above me, the small fish like constellations hanging against the light, the distant horizon of the surface like a completely other world.
There’s a real Zen to this entire exercise: everything here happens in one breath – the whole journey, the whole experience, the entire moment so beautifully measured and contained. I consider the air in my lungs and turn back over and calmly swim between the huge submerged boulders, the light at the bottom just a soft blue-grey. I kick thru a narrow canyon and then, as I rise, feeling the first spasm in my diaphragm but no urgency at all, pause at a ledge two meters up where beautiful striped cichlids are feeding against the mossy rocks, all sapphire scales or iridescent dragonfly blue.
I’m beginning now to feel a real pang of breath hunger, but I push it to the side of my mind. Instead, floating in neutral space, without a bubble or a movement to escape me, I sit and watch the brilliant fish, calmly feeding only inches from my mask as if I were not some gigantic intruder from another world, but in fact completely invisible. For long seconds in that perfect stillness it’s like time has ceased to pass, the fish nipping at the rocks in blades of pale strawcolored sunlight, but then my diaphragm spasms again and with the surface suddenly looking leagues away above me, I tilt my head and make a single strong scissor kick, my body streamlined as it rises towards that far horizon like a torpedo.
Seven seconds later I break the surface into the bright sunlight, but wait just a beat longer before I taste the air – the whole aqueous minute being just a single long unbroken moment, whose spell I don’t yet want to end.